Parents can help make good schools great

Governors at Cottage Grove Primary School in Southsea
Governors at Cottage Grove Primary School in Southsea
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Parents are arguably in the strongest position to judge if a school is doing well or not because the best sources of information are their own children.

But mums and dads across the city are failing to step up to the challenge of using that valuable insight to improve schools and raise standards.

Out of 860 governor posts across nursery, primary, secondary and special schools in Portsmouth, there are 123 vacancies, of which 41 per cent are for parents.

Thirty-three out of 68 of the city’s schools have failed to attract their full quota of parent governors - which averages at about four in primaries and seven in secondaries.

Abbie Eales, senior governor support officer at Portsmouth City Council, says: ‘The lack of parent governors has always been the case in Portsmouth, especially in the more deprived areas or for those schools with big catchment areas.

‘Parents don’t realise what impact they can have on a school. As a governor their contribution is massively important.

‘Governors are the voice of the taxpayer and one of the main tools to hold schools to account. By scrutinising finances, budgets, pay, staff performance and pupil attainment among other things, they are making sure children get the best education possible.

‘Without them, the school is left in a vacuum and is not answerable to anyone.’

Parents make up a third of a governing body, and the rest of the posts are divided up between members of the community, local authority-appointed people and teaching members of staff.

Abbie says: ‘Parent governors have a unique vantage point because they are the closest people to the school’s customers.

‘And because of their varied backgrounds they can give different perspectives on matters and offer up good ideas.

‘We have parent governors ranging from big business chief executives to stay-at-home mums and binmen, and each of them has an invaluable skill or view to bring to the table.’

Good governing bodies are very important. Outstanding Ofsted reports always praise them, poor Ofsteds more often damn them.

Highbury Primary in Cosham fell into the lowest possible category last year and the governing body was deemed so bad it was replaced with a council-appointed Interim Executive Board (IEB).

A similar case arose at Cottage Grove Primary a couple of years ago - but thanks to a successful IEB which chaperoned a shadow governing body, the school came out of special measures last June.

Abbie explains: ‘The buck stops with governing bodies’.

They can hire and fire headteachers, they oversee pay, ratify budgets and procurements, set strategies for exams improvement and analyse individual departmental performances.

Which is why proposals by the government to reduce governing bodies to a headteacher and a sole parent governors has not gone down well.

Abbie says: ‘It would have to be a pretty strong parent who could stand up to the headteacher and scrutinise every single aspect of the running of the school. ‘If you want full accountability and democracy, there is no better alternative to the system we have in place now - it’s a brilliant model. Sadly, however, we’re not seeing its maximum potential.’

Admittedly the commitment is a big one for a voluntary job. Being a parent governor can consume between two and 10 hours a week, depending on how many committees you sit on.

‘It is a big job with huge responsibility, but the benefits outweigh any sacrifice by a long way,’ says Abbie.

‘Being a part of the improvement of standards for generations of children in this city is the best gift possible.’

She adds: ‘There are such low numbers that schools are taking candidates who are not giving the job 100 per cent, leaving excellent parent governors taking on extra workloads.

‘It would be amazing to be in a position to elect the best people.’

Reflecting on the fact that exam results in the city persistently languish several percentage points behind the national average, Abbie says: ‘If more parents join governing bodies and take an interest in the city’s schools, results will naturally improve.

‘The alternative is that we end up with depleted governing bodies that do not challenge schools which just tick by.’

To enquire about volunteering to be a parent governor (18 years and above), visit the council website on portsmouth.gov.uk and click on learning, then schools and governors.

JULIAN WRIGHT

Julian Wright, 43, is a parent governor at Goldsmith Infants, Northern Parade Junior and Infants (they share a governing body under a ‘soft federation’) and Priory School.

The father-of-three from Southsea says: ‘Being a governor literally changed my life. I quit my job as an ICT manager in October 2004 to be involved in managing school community projects. I became a governor at my children’s two schools Goldsmith and Priory because I was always interested in education.

‘The experience gave me a great insight into the workings of the school and I have been heavily involved in major projects like the Building Schools for the Future plans for Priory School, which sadly fell through at the 11th hour.

‘Every school is different and has its own challenges. I joined Northern Parade when it was placed in notice to improve and we are nearing the end of an intense 12-month plan to get it out of category (a monitoring report last October reported satisfactory improvement).

‘There’s been lots of monitoring and evaluating, and even sitting in on lessons - but the schools are terrific and I’m hopeful we’ll come out of category at our next Ofsted. Unlike many parent governors I’ve stayed on after my children left and joined a school my children never went to because I get so much out of the job. It takes up about seven hours a week, but I really don’t mind because I know I’m making a difference.

STEVE COOK

Steve Cook, 51, from Farlington, is the vice-chair of governors at Springfield in Drayton - Portsmouth’s only outstanding Ofsted secondary school - which both his children attended.

The director of entertainment agency The CBS Group, based in Havant, says: ‘When I became a governor 15 years ago, Springfield wasn’t an outstanding school. That was probably what spurred me on to become a governor, and I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t bring myself to leave.

‘As governors we are not educationalists or inspectors, but we are there as a critical friend. Ours is not a confrontational job - we’re there to offer our support. Parent governors are from a variety of backgrounds and all bring something different to the table, for example a business perspective in my case. And more importantly, we all care with a passion because we are parents who want the best for all children.

‘I would absolutely recommend the job. Although it is a big commitment it is worth every minute. When we achieved our outstanding Ofsted (in 2009) it was great because it was the result of continuous hard work and improvement, from week to week.

‘As a governor you have the chance to shape the way the strategy works, and you are always seeking to improve things and raise standards. It’s not about five A* to Cs, it’s about the child who is expected to get Es or Fs getting lots of Ds.

ALISTAIR BUFTON

Alistair Bufton, a 36-year-old father-of-two, has just been re-elected for a second four-year term as a parent governor at Cumberland Infants in Southsea.

The Royal Navy Petty Officer from Southsea, who works as a careers manager for HMS Excellent, says: ‘I signed up for this because I wanted to be able to change things for the better, not just for my children but for everyone at the school.

‘I love bouncing ideas off my children because they’re proof of what works and what doesn’t. We’re rated ‘satisfactory’ by Ofsted but I can’t wait to see that jump up to ‘good’ at our next inspection because I can see the improvement with my own eyes.

‘As a team the governing body has supported the school in making the curriculum more exciting for the children and I know it’s having a really positive impact on learning and standards.

‘What I do find sad is that there are so many parents who voice their strong opinions on things in the playground, but don’t realise that by becoming a governor they really can be heard and they can make a huge difference.

‘It would be nice to see more parent governors sticking around after their children move on, because an experienced team is a real asset to any school. I love being a part of this school and I love being a part of its successes.

‘Even though I work full-time I can still do a good job for the school. It’s not about how many hours you’re putting in, it’s about the quality.’